Posts Tagged ‘History’

Canute and the Waves

July 17, 2011

Canute or Knut was a Viking king who reigned from 1016-1035. At the height of his power, he ruled England, Denmark, Norway, and parts of Sweden. He was a powerful and general good king, known for his statesmanship and good relations with the Church.

According to legend, once he sat his throne at the sea-shore and commanded the tide to halt. It didn’t and he got his shoes and robes wet. If King Canute were alive today, he would probably be an EPA administrator trying to regulate the concentration of naturally occurring components of the atmosphere.

Of course Canute’s intention was to show his flattering nobles how powerless any earthly king was next to the One King of Heaven and Earth. Too bad our modern-day Canutes show no such humility.

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Dissecting the Holocaust

June 27, 2011

I am not sure how it happened but Amazon.com is recommending this book to me. It’s not clear just what it is about. There are no reviews posted and the description is a little coy, but based on the other books in the series about the “alleged Holocaust”, I’m guessing that it is not a collection of scholarly articles on the history of the Holocaust.

The Genesis of Science

June 27, 2011

The popular idea of the Middle Ages in Europe is that it was a thousand year period of ignorance and barbarism between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, a time of nearly complete intellectual stagnation. Everyone is supposed to have been illiterate with the exception of a few clergymen and the Catholic Church kept a tight rein on all learning,  burning any scholar who dared to have an independent thought or challenge the authority of Scripture.

Historians have recognized for some time that this stereotype is entirely false. The Middle Ages, or “Dark Ages” were, in fact, a time of extraordinary fertility and progress. Many of the concepts and institutions that came to distinguish Western Civilization were developed in this era, especially the beginnings of the intellectual enterprise we call science.

In his book “The Genesis of Science”, James Hannam traces the development of science, or natural philosophy as it was then known, through the Middle Ages, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the trial of Galileo. He begins in the very depths the Dark Age, the chaotic 5th to 7th centuries, where even then the Europeans were beginning to pull ahead in practical technology with such useful tools as the moldboard plow and the horse collar, which revolutionized agriculture.

The discovery of ancient Latin and Greek manuscripts from the Arabs and Byzantines led to the rise of the Scholastic theologians of the 11th to 13 centuries. The Scholastics, under the influence of Aristotle, established reason as the method for learning about God and His creation. There was some controversy in the Catholic Church about pagan learning but the Scholastics, especially Thomas Aquinas showed that faith and reason could be reconciled and the Church accepted the ancient learning to the extent that it did not contradict Christian doctrine. With the acceptance of reason as an adjunct to faith, the philosophers of the Middle Ages were prepared to see the natural world around them as the rational creation of a rational God, forming the foundation for later scientific thinking.

The Scholastics did not slavishly follow Aristotle, however. They were capable of observing that he was wrong in some instances and were willing to move beyond him. In fact, some of their ideas about motion and forces were surprisingly modern. Some, especially Roger Bacon stressed the importance of careful observation of the natural world.

With the increased knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome during the Renaissance of the 13th to 15 centuries, much of this learning was disregarded and forgotten. The Renaissance Humanists venerated the ancients and so were inclined to denigrate the achievements of their immediate predecessors. The authority of Aristotle and others was more respected than the thoughts of more recent philosophers. The Protestant Reformation did not help matters, as the Protestants were not eager to give the Catholic Church any credit.

Still, progress continued and in the last section of his book, Hannam explores the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.  He closes with an account of Galileo. Although Galileo was a brilliant scientist who practically invented physics, he owed far more to his medieval predecessors than he was ever willing to admit. As for his troubles with the Inquisition, they had less to do with any Catholic opposition to science and were more due to politics and the folly of implying that the Pope was a simpleton.

The Genesis of Science is worth five stars. The perhaps over long summary that I have given above is only the merest foretaste to this brilliant work. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Last Roman

May 29, 2011

On this day, May 29, in 1453 the Turks captured Constantinople, the queen city of Christendom, and the last Roman Emperor Constantine XI fell in battle.

God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark

April 10, 2011

    The premise of God’s Battalions is that everything you think you know about the Crusades is simply wrong. No, the Crusades were not an act of Christian aggression against the Muslims. The Crusades were, in fact, a belated response to centuries of Muslim aggression against Christendom. No, the Crusaders were not ignorant barbarians attacking a far more civilized enemy. The supposed golden age of Islam was not as much a high point of learning, as is generally supposed, especially since most of the learning was the work of non-Muslims. On the other hand, Europe, even during the so-called Dark Ages, was already beginning to pull ahead in practical technology. Anyway, as Stark points out, the concept of the Dark Ages is not particularly accurate and historians have largely abandoned it.

     Yes, the Crusaders did sack Jerusalem. This was standard practice against cities that resisted a siege. In any case, Muslim atrocities exceeded Christian. No, the Crusaders did not slaughter Jews on the way to the Holy Land. German peasants did that. The Crusaders were forbidden by the Pope to harm Jews and many times bishops protected the Jews from the mobs.

    Stark makes a strong case for the Crusades. They were, as I have said, a reaction to aggression. The Crusaders acted, for the most part, from the highest of motives. They did not expect to get rich from their endeavors. Many Crusaders went bankrupt. They truly believed they were God’s battalions.

     We, their descendants, have nothing to apologize for. Indeed, we should be proud of the men who marched across half the world, and won stunning victories against a foe who vastly outnumbered them. Their deeds were glorious.

     I did take issue with his description of the Byzantines as treacherous. The Byzantines had no reason to trust these armies who were marching across their territory, especially since their leaders included some of Byzantium’s deadliest enemies. The sack of Constantinople cannot be as easily defended as Stark does. It may have been standard practice and the Angeli emperors bore most of the responsibility for the events, nevertheless, it was a crime, it that Byzantium was permanently weakened and it tended to discredit future crusades.

    Overall, God’s Battalions is a noble work and well worth reading.


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